|A Man Chases a Girl (Until She Catches Him), as the old Irving Berlin song from There's No Business Like Show Business goes, a title that could have been inspired by the Preston Sturges romantic comedy The Lady Eve, released in 1941. But was Sturges a cynic or a romantic? Considering he was married four times and had many more affairs, you could go either way on deciding, and it was accurate to observe that this particular film has been both championed as one of his most devoted to love against the odds, and also one that makes a mockery of the entire concept of romance as the movies would tell us it exists.
The starring roles were taken by Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda, both at the heights of their careers in the nineteen-forties, and indeed Stanwyck had been promised this film by Sturges who told her he would write a great part for her. Writing was how he got into the film business, penning screenplays for various comedies after his work as a playwright simply wasn't paying the bills: Hollywood was seen as the quick and easy way to make money, and many a respected author found themselves labouring away in an office with material they regarded as beneath them, much as you would see in the Coen Brothers' Barton Fink.
Things did not end quite as drastically for most of the writers as they did for John Turturro's hapless scribe in that movie, but for now-director Sturges it seemed there was no way he could fail until he did, his career crashing and burning after a heyday of a mere four or five years. The trailer for The Lady Eve emphasised his previous hits The Great McGinty and Christmas in July, but that was the sum of his directing experiences, and though audiences responded to his mix of slapstick, sauciness and clever wordplay, it was a shortlived connection with the public, as shortlived as many of his real-life relationships with women, in fact.
While he only directed thirteen films, and fewer than that were hits, the ones that did make an impression have gone on to be cherished by generations of movie buffs ever since. Yes, his films could be silly, even indulgent of that silliness, but there was a sincerity about the dynamics of the characters' interactions that suggested Sturges had tapped into a universal truth about relationships (he certainly had the life experience to back that up) that has successive film fans returning to his work and rediscovering it afresh. The epitome of the screwball comedy director, he was an eccentric sort of guy who perhaps longed to make grand statements.
So when he did turn serious in 1944's The Great Moment, a film about dentistry, it was as eccentric as usual, but audiences of the day just were not interested in the subject matter, and though he scrabbled around for comedy material afterwards, it proved a fatal mistake for his success, as was a plan to join forces with millionaire businessman Howard Hughes, whose most famous (or notorious) contribution to film history was buying one of Hollywood's biggest studios RKO and running it into the ground with his endless tinkering and ludicrous notions of what the world wanted to see in its movies, pretty much all of which fell flat on their faces.
Sturges fans can console themselves with the fact that he conjured up five all-time classics when he was on top for that brief time as the war raged across the world, taking his own advice from his most famous effort Sullivan's Travels that at times of global crisis, there's nothing that goes down better with the public than escapism, and proving that with one of the sweetest examples of same in The Palm Beach Story. But what of The Lady Eve? For many, it is their favourite Sturges project, thanks to remarkable chemistry between Stanwyck and Fonda that he exploited to the hilt, from their first meet cute aboard a South American cruise liner.
Fonda played a scientist specialising in snakes, and as he likes to point out, he has spent a year in the Amazon so has had no time for romance. But the world's women are intrigued, thanks to his family fortune in ale, and Stanwyck played the Eve who entraps him, a con artist who plans to marry him and fleece him of his millions. Something she does twice, thanks to her first plan going awry when she falls in love with him for real - what generates tension is that we can never be sure whether we should despise her character for taking advantage of the naïve heir, or find her endearing when she cannot help herself and allows her purer emotions to dominate her actions after a fashion. Supported by the typical Sturges cast of superb character actors (William Demarest, Eric Blore, Eugene Pallette, and so on), you can see why so many find The Lady Eve irresistible, Sturges was like nobody else, an unrepeatable experiment in auteurs that struck gold for a precious few years.
[The Criterion Collection release this on Blu-ray with the following extensive features:
New 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
Audio commentary from 2001 featuring film professor Marian Keane
Introduction from 2001 by filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich
New conversation among writer-director Preston Sturges's biographer and son Tom Sturges; Bogdanovich; filmmakers James L. Brooks and Ron Shelton; film historian Susan King; and critics Leonard Maltin and Kenneth Turan
New video essay by film critic David Cairns
Costume designs by Edith Head
Lux Radio Theatre adaptation of the film from 1942 featuring Barbara Stanwyck and Ray Milland
Audio recording of "Up the Amazon," a song from an unproduced stage musical based on the film
English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
PLUS: An essay by critic Geoffrey O'Brien and a 1946 profile of Preston Sturges from LIFE magazine.]